First, let’s define our terms: your microbiome is the collective term for all the bacteria that populate your gut—all 100 trillion of them. Even though your microbiome is not technically “you,” it’s so important to your body’s function that it’s been characterized as another organ.
What it does: Your microbiome acts like an army, protecting you against foreign invaders (pathogenic bacteria, parasites, etc).
It also helps to educate your immune system about the difference between friend and foe, making it very important to mitigate against and prevent allergies and autoimmunity.
It also helps you break down your food. You know how raw cruciferous veggies and certain kinds of beans can make you gassy? If you had the right balance of bacteria in your microbiome, recent studies show, you wouldn’t have that problem. You don’t have those bacteria because you just don’t need them often enough, relative to other cultures replete with fiber. (Just like with everything else—use it or lose it.)
Different Diets Require Different Organisms
Three studies (1, 2, 3) compare indigenous diets (consisting primarily of veggies, tubers, legumes, and high-fiber grains) to Western diets (consisting primarily of high animal fats — agriculture industry fat, that is—sugar, processed foods, and low fiber).
What they found: first, the distribution of bacteria that make up the microbiome differs, based upon dietary consumption. Hunter-gatherers require more organisms to help break down otherwise undigestible polysaccharides (complex carbs), whereas Western subjects don’t eat enough polysaccharides for this to matter. At least that’s the assumption.
Second, Western populations have a very high proportion of bifidobacillus in their microbiome, whereas the indigenous populations studied so far have none at all. Bifidobacillus comprises a chunk of the microbiome of nursing infants in all cultures, however—the assumption is that bifidobacillus is correlated with consumption of milk. Cultures that do not consume milk beyond infancy (and most don’t) wouldn’t require this organism to help break it down into adulthood.
Third, indigenous cultures have a much greater biodiversity in their microbiomes than do Westerners. This may be due to the lack of diversity in our diets, causing the microbiome to respond by becoming similarly narrow. Another possibility is the overwhelming use of antibiotics, not only among ourselves for minor ailments, but also in the agricultural industry. Once a relatively minor population of gut flora gets wiped out, it won’t be able to rebound—as far as our little ecosystem is concerned, it’s extinct.
Indigenous Diets = Greater Biodiversity
Turns out the indigenous populations tested had not just greater biodiversity, but also significantly more short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which are produced by the microflora, than the Western populations. SCFA are the food for the large intestine, allowing it to repair itself.
Why does diversity matter? For the same reason you shouldn’t marry your cousin: diversity creates a sort of checks-and-balances system that prevents a single genetic weakness from wreaking havoc. Less diversity leads to a more tenuous balance, and greater susceptibility to illness.
Your gut, we are realizing more and more, is the gateway not just to pathogenic illnesses, but also to noninfectious gut disorders like allergies and autoimmunity. It’s also the key to protecting against these ailments.
Protect Your Microbiome
The bacteria in your gut are critically important to your health. Some steps you can take to keep it healthy:
- Avoid eating processed junk foods. Choose real foods whenever possible, and eat plenty of raw foods. This will help to replenish the microbiome.
- Unless you eat a whole lot of fermented foods and avoid agriculture industry animal products and antibiotics, you almost certainly need a daily probiotic. Choose one that’s 10-20 billion organisms daily, and (pending more research on specific microorganisms), for most Westerners the ratio should be about half from the bifidobacillus family, and half from the lactobacillus family.
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